Saturday, October 23, 2010

What Is a Critter?

For those of you not born in the Southern part of the USA, a critter is a nice word for a varmint. Possums are critters, squirrels, deer, etc. It's considered the height of hilarity to refer to a pet as a critter. If you go camping, and pick up critters and bring them home with you, it's not good. It generally means you have chiggers, or scabies or some other horrifying bug.

In Scotland, the critters are limited. Nothing insect-like can survive those temperatures. Cats are popular, being small and cute. We lived with a cat in Inverness called Mickey Mouse. As noted in the ferry blog, Scottish Terriers and Border Collies are quite picturesque and appropriate. We ran into the Norfolk, a sturdy breed of horse which resembles a Morgan, and then Shetlands. The Shetland Islands are right above Orkney. The horses are small, pudgy and hairy because of the wind, cold, and proximity to the Arctic. We didn't visit because even Marc and I have some standards. We weren't prepared for travel that far north, and they were probably inaccessible due to ice.

We stopped on the way to Orkney to see a deer. Now, this is the Red deer, a native of England and Scotland, but my American readers are thinking, "Why would anyone stop to see a deer?" Which is what Marc and I looked at each other. My English readers are thinking, "Hey, they got to see a deer!" We stopped the vehicle and all got out, ALL of us, to see one deer standing on a hill. Marc was looking at it through a telephoto lens and almost refused to give it to me. He handed it over and looked at me as if I had just popped out with a set of wings. He climbed back on board the bus, saying, I'll take a picture when I get home.

It's just another reminder of just how old the Old World is. We stopped to see trees as well, and our guide to Skye told us 'they' are rebuilding the ancient Caledonian Forest, i.e. the gigantic forest that used to cover Scotland before people needed the wood for fire, etc. We could see the need for trees, but trying to preserve deer takes a stretch of imagination for an American. We do all we can to avoid the deer, who like throwing themselves in front of vehicles to see what kind of noise they can make.

And we didn't get to see the famous Puffins on Orkney. It was way to cold for even them.

Next: London on Easter Sunday. No kidding.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Stirling: Ancestral Home of the Stewarts

OK, this is the entry on castles I promised. It never occurred to me, in the American landscape, to think anything about castles except they are generally old and people lived in them, long ago. When we got to Scotland, we found that, first of all, castles were defensive structures. Armies and people ran to castles at the first sign of trouble, i.e. Someone Else Coming After Us. In this day and age of vehicles, it just didn't occur to me that a building spot for a castle would be the most difficult spot to get to as the builders could find.

The builders usually picked the highest hill in the area. Edinburgh Castle in sitting on the very top of an extinct volcano. It is totally inaccessible except along "the Royal Mile," the road built up to it. Which IS a mile long and straight up as could be made. Historic Scotland, one of the institutions created to protect and promote the historic sites in Scotland (surprise) keeps all vehicular traffic as far away from anything remotely considered historic as it can. And, forgive the pun, everything in Scotland that is historic is remote. Your tour bus lets you off at the farthest possible point and you walk uphill until you get to something interesting, like a castle.

The first we saw was on the way to Skye, Eileen Donan. It was restored to it's original glory in the 1920's by a wealthy manufacturer and is simply stunning. It looks every bit as castle-like as an American could want. It was also an interesting commentary on how modern plumbing was viewed in the '20's. The guest rooms had a bathroom sink beside the bed. I am presuming this was a deluxe item. We never found any toilets in Eileen Donan or any room built for the purpose of  serving as a garderobe. Wiki has this to say, "In its euphemistic meanings, a garderobe is either a close stool or a medieval or Renaissance lavatory or toilet.[1] In a medieval castle or other building, a garderobe usually was a simple hole discharging to the outside. Such toilets were often placed inside a small chamber, leading by association to the use of the term garderobe to describe them. Depending on the structure of the building, garderobes could lead to cess pits or moats. Many can still be seen in Norman and medieval castles and fortifications. They became obsolete with the introduction of indoor plumbing."

We did see a garderobe in Edinburgh Castle, which was updated by Henry VIII, but the room was so small it was hard to see how an adult could fit in it. The toilet had a velvet seat, which brings on pictures I would rather not think about. It was right off the dining room and nobody but the king could use that one, (not a surprise.)

Eileen Donan was not difficult for us to get to: we walked right over the bridge. But scaling the walls would have taken some sherpas and modern mountain climbing equipment. Or a crane. Or a very large slingshot.

Stirling Castle was accessible from a road as well. Standing on the castle wall, it was a long, long way down. The back and sides of the castle were sheer drop-offs looking down to the valley below. We could see for miles across the countryside. Another notable point was the wind. The wind is eternal in Scotland, from the ocean, the north, the south, etc. Standing on a castle wall, the wind was in a fair way to carry us back to the U.S. free of charge. Small children would have to be anchored. You would have to have chain mail on, just to keep you in place.

Stirling and Edinburgh Castles were extraordinarily complete, in a country where most castles are now lumps of moss, or grassy rocks standing on the edge of a cliff. Another fun fact is the size of the fireplaces. You could have parked a jeep in any one of them. It made us realize what a small, nouveau firecracker American fireplaces are. Ours are made for a few decorative pieces of wood. Castle fireplaces where made to cook a herd of deer in.

Stirling was a lovely town, with a row of historic houses built along the road to the castle. It was prime real estate, and probably slowed some armies up on their way to the 'Big House.'  We were supposed to visit Lainey, a friend of Marc's, while in Stirling, but our schedule was thrown off by a day of feverish shopping in Inverness. Marc has managed to cultivate friendships all over the world. If we had traveled to Antarctica, some scientist would have popped out of a snowbank, yelled his name, and asked him how the dogs and horses were doing.

In Edinburgh, I had another surprise for my brother. I had booked us a room on the 2nd floor of a B & B. And told him that. He didn't realize what we considered the 1st floor is considered the 'ground floor' in Scotland. THEN, the 1st floor, etc. It became less funny when it became apparent that the staircase was so small and winding that our luggage might have to be airlifted in through the windows. Still less funny than that, we could go to the bathroom if we put the luggage on the bed. And we could open the luggage if no one was in the bathroom. But sitting on the bed, looking in the luggage, and having access to the bathroom at one time was not possible. If the room had been any smaller, we would have had to coordinate turning over at night.

And silly us, in our feverish haste to celebrate our birthdays in Scotland, we didn't realize we would be touring Scotland's largest city and capital on the weekend of Easter Sunday. It was a bit like Scottish Disneyland. After spending a week being the only tourists for miles and marveling at the lack of population, we were inundated with people, mostly sticky children. 

My hamstring gave out on my last climb back up the Royal Mile. We had been walking on cobblestones straight up and down hill for a week. Marc got me to a cab station, because you can't hail a cab off of the street there, and packed me off to three flights of stairs where I spent the rest of the day renewing my acquaintance with the pound of fudge I had bought my sister-in-law, and which never made it home. I gave the poor man my credit card and told him to have fun.

Next: Critters of Scotland

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blue Skye

I'm glad we went to Skara Brae first. It was my pick and very beautiful. Marc's pick was Skye, in the Western Islands. It looks just like Colorado, only it makes Colorado look like a teeming metropolis. Marc always picks the location that looks like Colorado...don't ask me why. It seems to be his ideal of earthly beauty. My ideal is tied to water, and lots of it.

We didn't make the mistake of thinking we would be away from water while we were there, it is just more omnipresent in some places than others. They ejected us from a bus in another cold location (surprise) and we were excited to see the ruins of a castle. But castles will be an entry unto themselves: castles are generally nasty buggers left on top of the highest hill in a remote location. And they are historic, which means you WALK to them.

What was a surprise was that, if you stand in the middle of Scotland, you are not 40 miles from the nearest shore. It means the ground doesn't freeze and explains the existence of large palm trees in the gardens in the west. The seeds are carried by the ocean current from Jamaica, etc. and deposited and grow. It reminded me of the Monty Python film where the two soldiers are arguing about the speed of an African swallow carrying a coconut.

There was a phenomena of Skye that did impress me. The air was scented. At first, I thought it was some neat trick that the Department of Tourism had pulled off, a kind of property potpourri. Then we realized it came from a lack of gas and town fumes. No restaurant smells, no car exhaust, no pavement fumes: the air was clean. And it smelled lovely, like pine trees and grasses and flowers. It was vaguely depressing and I miss it to this day. I have not smelled anything like it before or since. It was a moment of Grace. I have an enduring pity for those who haven't smelled air like that.

Back in Inverness from our day in Skye, Marc left the B & B as he did every night at 10 PM, to call home.
Better him than me.

Next: What Should Have Been Stirling

Monday, October 18, 2010

Clean Fields

I am going to write about the how clean Scotland is as a country, and got confused by various word groupings which could suggest how well the country is maintained, and/or how tidy the Scottish are. Both are worth noting. It is hard for an American to envision a tidy country, i.e. one so small it can be cared for by hand with a whisk broom and a wheelbarrow. Scotland IS that small. The public bathrooms were so clean that the communities would run contests for "best decorated" or "most Scottish." They were small huts, in parking lots or the edge of a village where one could run to "...tidy up." Pictures, flower arrangements, huge paper thistles hung in the best, and I have pictures to prove it. Just an extra in the vacation that is not advertised in the brochures. (How would you begin?) And they're heated!

This amazing trend extends to their buses. I'm used to grimy Greyhounds that look as if a Lord Voldemort slept there when he was depressed. Scottish buses, on the other hand, look as if Morticia Addams had a hand in the decoration: red plush velvet chairs (not seats) that reclined, red plush carpet and a bathroom you could install in The White House and invite heads of state to meet there without any redecoration. No bus smell. It was as if Grand Dad picked you up in the old Rolls for the ride to the ancestral manor.

Scottish water heaters are almost a necessity in their climate. An instant water heater, it is a small box that is installed on the side of the pipe. When the water is turned on, boiling water comes out. After two days to Orkney and back, the North Sea and the fun of visiting underground burial chambers in the middle of winter, it is heaven. Especially when the boiling water is running into a gigantic claw foot tub in the cleanest bathroom I have ever been in. It is the hygienic equivalent of their pastries, light, fluffy, creamy and comforting.

Next: Skye     or    Is That a Palm Tree?

Sunday, October 17, 2010


is made by taking a sheep's stomach and washing it. (!) This is after it is removed from the sheep. One throws in bits and pieces of meat, what we would call chitlins, and uncooked oatmeal and blood. The stomach is sealed and thrown into a pot of water to boil for hours. It's a bit like Uncle Ben's microwaveable rice dishes, isn't it?
In Scotland, no one with an ounce of integrity will admit to ever having eaten haggis, although it's sold in tins (cans) for tourists to take home. The hostess of our B & B in Inverness, Gillian, refused to heat any up if we bought some. She said it would make the house stink.

There is an equivalent here in the South (U.S.A.) that is called, "Potted Possum." It's not really possum, but cans of it can be bought for oogling tourists to take home and laugh about. Which brings me to an interesting observation: both the Scottish and Southerners were conquered nations, forced in extremity to eat that which would not normally be eaten. Both foods are now considered jokes by the world. History is, indeed, always written by the conquerors.

Meanwhile, back to Orkney. The morning after touring Skara Brae was beautiful (frozen.) And we waited two hours at a bus stop after reading the schedule wrong and not realizing what day it was. The ferry trip back was incredibly uneventful. We landed in Thurso, starving to death, and had pastries for lunch. Bakeries are the equivalent of what Sheetz or McDonalds is for us. That is, a place where one can obtain food that can be consumed right then. We ate an enormous amount of tuna fish salad sandwiches, which were unremarkable except for the fact that the bakers put corn in it. I don't know why and neither did anyone we asked. We also ate a good amount of doughnuts, pastries, etc., which of course, a bakery would specialize in.

We took a bus back to Inverness and collapsed.

Next: The Superiority of the Scottish as Evinced by their Bus System and Water Heaters.

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Life has given me plenty to cry about and more than enough to laugh about. It has rarely given me too many friends.

So many times I have sat in the dark listening to the music no one else could hear. When I accepted that no one else could hear it and decided to listen, it changed to voices and back to music. Now, I listen to the silence that exists in that space that used to hold noise. The silence that Confucius assured me is the 'language of God'.

Through circumstances, I have had a period of no TV and no computer at home placed on me. No phone, no barking Ed, rarely music. Far from being the isolating event I thought it would be, it has pulled me together. There is the silence of the cats, of the night, of storms, of the house and of my coffee pot. Each is different in it's quality of silence. All are deep silences; there is something there to listen to.When it has centered me, I can go out and listen with more attention and less pain. Except for Sunday.

I am taking a break from the adventures in Scotland today. The weather last night makes me homesick for it. On some little spit of land at John o' Groats, there is a statue dedicated to the Scottish people who have had to migrate west to the Americas over the centuries when the King hunted them or the land failed them. And let's face it, when their own wars drove them out. A man and boy face directly into the west, striding forward valiantly in hopeful desire. The woman, with her hand on her son's shoulder, clutches the shawl tossed over her head and faces the dawn. Her face is shadowed by her flying hair and she is barefoot, looking, full of sorrow back to the village she is leaving. Spray from the Atlantic booms and paws at the cliff below them. Their statues are never free from rain or ocean, and only rarely from ice. Only puffins visit here every year on their annual migration, and the few who visit Skara Brae. Those Scottish looking back.

Wikipedia states, "In all cases, the term diaspora carries a sense of displacement; that is, the population so described finds itself for whatever reason separated from its national territory, and usually its people have a hope, or at least a desire, to return to their homeland at some point."

The Scottish have a lot of jokes about the disbursement of the Scottish across the globe over the centuries. In the 1950's, Jewish author Harry Golden speculated that the Presbyterians were the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Presbyterians joke about once being the 'frozen chosen' now being the 'hot Scots' (see my post about the Scottish love of Florida.) The Scots, for the most part, love the longing that brings the displaced home again, to face what was, what could have been, and what is. We buy remnants to take home to others displaced: tins of haggis, sweaters, pictures and memories. We are lucky. Scotland is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth. We can sigh and come home happy, still longing. I don't know of any other nation who is so lucky.

Next: Less Nostalgia, More Haggis    OR   Less a Spilling of Guts Than an Eating of Them.

Publish Post

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Food for Thought

My niece got two chickens last night and named them Original and Extra Crispy. Sometimes, it frightens me that my brother reproduced, but someone had to. I suppose. She's probably the best thing to hit the Stewart line since James VII of Scotland became James I of England. My brother wants me to stop spelling his name the traditional way as well. I was trying to keep him anonymous as "Mark" but I will switch to his choice of "Marc" to keep him happy.

Late at night in Orkney and nothing to eat except two packs of aforementioned 'biscuits'. Until I pulled out the four, very flat, honey buns I had snagged at White's truck stop on our way to D.C. At the time, Marc scornfully wanted to know what I needed them for: I reminded him of that as I tossed him two that night in Orkney. They had been in my backpack across the Atlantic and through Amsterdam, so they were VERY flat; but, boy, were they good.

4 o'clock in the morning and we were both wide awake with the thrill of the day. Our tour of Orkney started at 9, and breakfast was at 8. We drank the entire supply of coffee and tea left in our room and even tried a biscuit, but one of the towels turned out to have a better flavor.

Breakfast at a B & B always started the same way. No matter how hungry we were, the English tourists beat us to the dining room. Three plastic containers of cereal were always set on a sideboard and the English loved cereal. As far as I could tell, for we never tasted any, it looked like cheerios, cornflakes, and then something colored very brightly. We just waited for the real food. It was invariably bacon, eggs and fruit. We never figured out why you would need to start the meal with the cereal. It's like going to a $2 all-you-can-eat buffet, and ordering $4 worth.

We  went to Scotland in late March/early April for the prices, and because we couldn't wait until summer. But no amount of time in Roanoke prepared us for latitudes above Oslo, Norway in early Spring. And we were on an island. I had forgotten that the wind is perpetual on an island. England, Scotland, Orkney, Shetland: islands in the coldest sea below polar bear territory. The outdoor scenes in the Harry Potter movies were filmed in the Highlands. We were north of that. How the English went on to conquer India and Africa is beyond me...what a public relations job that must have been. Queen and Country wouldn't have begun to cover it.

So we had escaped losing life and limb to the North Sea to face a mild day of hail, snow, rain and sleet. We had this mixture everyday for at least five minutes, every four hours or so. Then, everything would magically clear and whatever we had come to see would unveil itself. It was, truly, magic.

Our fear that our tour was canceled due to the weather (it doesn't happen) was unfounded. Our guide was a very happy 55 year old about to marry a 26 year old Canadian who had taken his tour several years before. He said it made him 'peppy'. We were the only ones on the tour, except for an extremely quiet English woman who looked as if she had been born in the neolithic ruins of Skara Brae. Maybe it was the cereal.

The Scottish along this tourist route were very excited about seeing tourists so early in the season, especially this far north. Everyone we ran into either wanted to vacation in Florida or had vacationed in Florida, or was related to someone who, etc...

The first attraction was a site innocuously called Maes Howe. It was damp and we walked a half mile across a mud field to get to it. I'll save the suspense and relate we both came home with bronchitis and signs of exposure; but it was worth it. At Skara Brae, we walked straight into the village, which was built into a hill of discarded refuse, dirt and oyster shells. It was a bit like touring Hobbiton where all the Hobbits had stepped out for a cup of tea and would be right back.

By this time, the night's storm had past and the sky was sparkling and a brilliant turquoise. It seemed to be a characteristic color of Orkney. The ocean was the same color with lapis blue in the deeper areas. It looked just like the pictures of the Caribbean, only ten minutes up to your knees in this water would kill you. An impulse buy of wool sweaters at John a' Groats saved us. (The northernmost point of mainland Scotland.) American wool is short and itchy and works ok with cotton or silk underneath it. Of course, it requires the earth-harmful cleaning method of dry cleaning. Scottish wool is from long-haired sheep, soft as sable AND washable. It is waterproof as well. But don't stick it in the dryer. My sweater is now infant-sized because of a mistake.

We had lunch at the gift shop/museum while our guide entertained us with tales of his arch-rival who owned the competing tour bus. I wandered around in a daze all day...I was finally here. I couldn't hear anything the tour guide or Marc said. I didn't say anything that I remember. I think I babbled at the guide once, expressing my desire to stop somewhere. I know exactly how Harry Potter felt walking into Hogwarts for the first time. Occasionally, I would twirl around on my axis to get a 360 view and I felt as if I had been drinking champagne all morning. I saw my hand extend the credit card a couple of times and then it was over for the day.

We called home from the grocery store at a rate I estimated later would have made a sizable down payment on Princess Di's wedding gown.

Next: Skye

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Against the Grain

The boy orphan cat, Minkins, came in last night and let me know that my service animal, Eddie, wasn't his only momma. They are such a comfort now that he is gone. And Ratface is leaving my chocolate alone, although Echo inadvertently overdrew my account yesterday. She doesn't like the new catfood I am playing with.

But, to continue from yesterday: Mark and I landed in Kirkwall, The Orkneys, Scotland, in one piece, full of caffeine and adrenaline and hungry as tigers. Only I knew the truth. The friendly family unloaded their car and walked us to our Bed and Breakfast at about 9 o'clock at night. As we were walking, Mark turned to our friend and asked, "Where can we get something to eat?" I said, "I haven't told him yet." Our friend said, "Breakfast is about 8 in the morning."

Most of small-town Europe is what Americans would consider 'strict' about their food. There are times that food is served and times where you, if you haven't eaten, are out of luck. The Scottish would never dream of ruining their country with an all-night McDonalds, for instance. Or an all-night anything, for that matter, except for a pub. And the pubs operate on the assumption that beer and ale is part of a food group. And I agree that kidney pie is not something I would want to slide down on top of a belly full of beer, anymore than I would want to wash a plate of chitlins down with some Tennessee whiskey. And that far north, vegetables aren't food, as such. If it ferments, it belongs in the ale.

Now, my brother prefers meat and chocolate, but he would gladly have eaten a cabbage sandwich at this time, if it had been available. The knowledge that no food of any kind was available was a stunner. And he isn't that crazy about beer or ale. He didn't know about mayo, mustard and ketchup, yet, either. I told him, evil one that I am, that biscuits would be in the room. Our Orkney friend laughed and waved good bye.

To the English, a biscuit is what an American would call a cracker or Melba bread. Not a saltine, but a sometimes noxious compendium of grains, dried and hardened, and best left to horses. Most taste like rye bread. After the invention of biscuits, the English decided there were better things to do with grain. Much better things.

In our room, we did indeed find the ubiquitous electric kettle, instant coffee, packets of tea and two small (thankfully) packets of biscuits.

 Tomorrow: What'll You Give Me ? Or the continuing foodie adventures in Scotland. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sturm and Drang

It's 80F here in Roanoke, VA and it snowed a bit in Scotland this morning. If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets.

I was attempting to have a meaningful relationship on the North Sea with a good cup of coffee, when I was interrupted by a storm. 36 hours out of Roanoke, and I couldn't smoke. Well, in my pursuit of these, I found out from the friendly fellow behind the bar that everyone else was below decks, ready to evacuate to the life rafts or to stabilize the ship further, or both.

We had a funny moment when I was screaming my name over the sound of the engines, the sea, and crashing cars in the hold, and he was trying to tell me what he was called. ("Stewart! Stewart!" "Steward! Steward!") He must have been really pissed I wouldn't go below and I was slightly less pissed at not getting my coffee. When I realized what he was trying to get me to do, I froze. There was no way I was letting go of MY rail, either.

Then the ship did a belly flop and the stabilizer disappeared. We slipped behind the protection of an island and all unpleasant motion ceased. When my brother, Mark, and the other passengers reappeared, the captain wanted to know why I was sitting at a table, staring at a coffee cup. The steward managed to stay out of trouble and my slight hearing loss from too many rock concerts in high school was explained. And I got my coffee. Free.

While below, Mark met a family from Orkney bringing their new dog home. The dog's name was Storm, and Naomi, the 10 year old, wanted nothing more to do with that dog. Another thing about the Scottish: they are so self-conscious about presenting their country as the greatest tourist destination in the world, they go overboard (no pun intended.) Every dog I saw in Scotland was groomed to the teeth. The people in the villages and rural areas owned Border Collies, and people in the City owned white Scottish Terriers. We saw no labs, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Poodles, or any other type of dog  the entire 10 days we were there. All horses were native to Scotland or England. It was a bit of a mind-blower. 

On the other hand, the country is so geared toward tourism, that the Scottish will just about put you up in their own home to get you to stay. Which they did. We spent the entire time in Bed and Breakfast homes across the country. We could not have had a lovelier or cheaper time anywhere. We had to be careful not to make jokes like, "I'm so hungry, I could eat a bear!" while we were there. It was not taken as a joke.

The food: I like food. I like to eat, cook and admire food. I like it to be different. My brother Mark, on the other hand, would have eaten nothing but McDonald's if I would have let him.

Next in the series: How Not to Eat in Scotland

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Douglas Adams Said

that there is a melancholy time in Sunday afternoons, between the hours of 2 o'clock and 4 o'clock that he called The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul. I would follow that in America with the pre-prime Heart Attack Hours. More Americans die of heart attacks on Monday morning than any other time. Most of Sunday evening is spent contemplating Monday, back at work, and freaking about the kids' homework and the weekday schedule.

So here I am, sitting in this coffee house, listening to the Beatles' "Baby You Can Drive My Car" and watching twilight encroach on Botetourt County. There is that lemony color on the horizon that is caught perfectly in early Autumn.

What a timely place to placidly contemplate my destruction in an icy sea several years ago. My intro to the Scottish: they are all like my father. Same sense of humor, timing, money, everything. I always thought it was an El Paso, TX thing. It's not. It's Scottish.

So, here was this friendly man refusing to give me another Americano, or let me go outside to smoke. Not that I could have made it to the door; it was uphill at this time. And he wasn't refusing to help me. He felt keeping his hands on the rail in front of him was a smarter move. Here is the Dad think: the waiter said, "Do you see what I am standing in front of?" Yes, indeed, I had noticed and ignored the glass liquor bottles on the pretty shelves behind him. He said, "I can see letting my hands go for one of these, but for coffee? And if we make it, there will be a lot of people below decks who will be needing this more." Score one for his logic. Only another friend of Bill W. would have understood.

That made me another curiosity. He gave the foam-filled window another sidling, wild look and said, "If you don't need a drink after this, the first coffee is on me." I told you the Scottish were cheap. But, as I look back on it...what else did he have to offer at the time? I didn't drink booze and maybe he was married; or in a hurry to get back to Norway. And he was going to be plenty busy if we lived.

I asked him his name, which I will protect in case I get to go back to Orkney and he asked me mine. I just loved telling the Scottish my name was Stewart. Since most Americans associate the name with Mary, Queen of Scots, the queen of bad luck in her struggle with Queen Elizabeth I, Mark and I thought the name would be funny to the Scottish. Look. Stewarts touring Scotland. Ha ha. Which is as funny to the Scottish as telling them a joke that has to be followed by the words, "Get it?" or nervously saying, "Ha ha" afterword.

Most of the money trickling into Scotland, despite their lovely country and hard efforts to keep it a clean and sustainable resource, is from tourists from the States looking into their Scottish ancestry. Nothing can be more boring to the Scottish.

Tomorrow: How to Entertain the Scottish

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Stick Your Face Out the Window

The Cats have noticed that Eddie is gone and are taking advantage of unsupervised time at home. What a shocker. At least they changed the sheets this morning. They like sleeping in the sunspot in the afternoons and rolling around.

Here comes the time of year I love best. My brother and I were cruising Scotland in late March of 2005. Orkney, near the Arctic Circle to be exact. Higher in latitude than Oslo, Norway. Yeah. In late March.
We had gotten there the night before in a very large, modern ferry (Norwegian) through one of the worst storms seen in the North Sea that year. Norwegian ships built for storms have 'stabilizers' to control the ship in the choppy North Sea. They look like the blades on an Hawaiian know; those thingys off the side to keep the ship from capsizing.

I only know what they look like because I didn't hear the general announcement and panicked screams in the lounge. I was smoking outside. A native of Orkney was standing there with me smoking, and getting some air (it takes talent to do both simultaneously) when this raucous, BLAWWWWW went off in our ears and the deck heaved. I thought Moby Dick had us.

He casually turned to me and said, "We're sinking. You'd better get inside."

It's not that I couldn't hear him, which I couldn't. We were standing in the gentle, warm draft venting from the ferry's enormous engines. If I stepped out of that zone, my face was whipped with sleet and driving rain. I kept having to clear the ice forming on my glasses, thanking God for the 'sports protection' layer I had so thoughtfully ordered the year before.  I will admit, I was thinking more of my horseback riding 'skills' than anything else then.  

It was simply that the words, "We are sinking." activated a part of my brain that has rarely been tapped. At first, I thought he was speaking Norwegian. But he had plainly been speaking English the moment before. Then he shouted, "Are you daft?" Then, he screamed it. I ran away from the maniac and shot through the door of the lounge to get away from the nut and noticed that I was on the ship alone, except for my pursuer.

who ran past me like the speed of light and disappeared further into the ship. No, wait. There was one guy behind the bar, holding onto it while the ship tilted, swayed and jolted like like we were coming into LAX on a 767 during a monsoon. The engines were so loud, I thought I was on the 50 yard line at Daytona, or wherever. You get the point.

He was the guy who had been feeding Marc and I 'Americanos' since we hit the ship. (Black, decent coffee. Scotland is very, very, very far from South America and the Scottish are cheap.) So I walked up to the bar and held out my cup hopefully, "Americano, please?"

It was hard to hear his response over some crashing, and I looked behind me and  video games were on the floor, you know the big ones the size of old pinball machines? I couldn't see how that was possible, as they appear to have been chained to the wall, but I wasn't taking much in at the moment. We had had a hell of a journey across the Atlantic to get to that point; I just wanted coffee and cigarettes. Then, I noticed that the expensive jewelry shop next to the gaming room was missing some displays and windows.

Anyway, the guy kept shaking his head 'No' and I kept insisting and pointing to the coffee machine. Apparently he was curious about me. He sidled around to where I was holding onto the bar and shouted friendly-like at me, "Did you grow up on the ocean?"

and pointed toward the window. That's when I caught a glimpse of a stabilizer. I really couldn't tell the difference between it and and deck and the storm surges at this point. I can just say I have seen one. He moved closer and I thought he was flirting with a tourist, and remarked, casually, as if I was to keep it secret, "If we go down in this water, we'll die as soon as we hit, with the temperature being what it is."

Tomorrow: my introduction to the Scottish.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Art of Letting Go

I have to let go of my worries today...for most things, it's a melancholic grief that passes in time. On the other hand, there is the State Attorney General and the Governor. What a shock to realize my tax dollars are being used to investigate where and what a grant was used for at the University of Virginia. All that nice money whooshing down in the circular motion we all know (except for those taxpayers in Virginia who still don't have indoor plumbing. Yes, it's true. No toilets, no running water in the home.)

The Washington Post said, "The attorney general's logic is so tenuous as to leave only one plausible explanation: that he is on a fishing expedition designed to intimidate and suppress honest research and the free exchange of ideas upon which science and academia both depend -- all because he does not like what science says about climate change." (Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010) 

Pell Grants are almost non-existent. The 'dumbing down' of America started long ago; and Cuccinelli thinks there is enough money to investigate something that two noted Universities (Virginia and Pennsylvania) and all the countries that signed the Kyoto Accord think is a legitimate study; i.e.Most sentient beings on the planet, except the U.S. The object of the study is not important: the fact that he seems to have nothing better to do, and nothing better to do with my money, is.

But maybe he is taking a page from his boss, Governor McConnell, who thinks losing a major source of revenue for the State of Virginia is a good idea. Not that I think selling booze is a great idea in the first place. However, we all know Prohibition didn't work. But I have visited states where the sale of booze has been privatized: you can buy half gallons of Jim Beam in the grocery store along with your Wheaties and toothbrushes.

I like Canada's idea...put ALL alcohol products in ABC stores (beer, wine, booze) and none in the grocery stores. Same with cigarettes. Booze and cigarette manufacturers spend billions on pretty colors and advertising. I am not saying they target children (they assure us they don't. Why would they lie?) but by the time your kids turn 16, 18 and 21, they can find the Coors, Bud and Marlboro supplies by themselves in the dark. And someone to buy it for them, no matter their age. That's why we couldn't buy beer in Canada on a band trip...

But that would put a crimp in the Governor's retirement plans. He NEEDS that money! The problem is: I DO TOO! Donate mine to the schools so Ellen can stop buying pencils and notebooks for her classes.

I hope this blog has been helpful. Our closest printed information source is in D.C., Roanoke!

It's a good thing sometimes, that everything I let go of has claw marks in it.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"There Is Only One of You In All of Time"*

This is for my service animal, Eddie. He headed to his winter pastures on September 15, 2010. He had a good long life surrounded by a world that was, for him, filled with miracles. He is running in a place where it is always spring or fall. The wind is moving swiftly through the grasses and he is following the herd. Every once in a while, he and Cheyenne stop and roll in the cow patties, or eat some horse manure. Boogie can run circles around them, despite her size. Until Marc and I begin to dream and we call them to come home for a while and rest at our feet.

I am grateful today that I can sit in this coffee house and let the tears go. I carry his chip around with me and he seems always to be in the back seat, with his nose sticking out of the window.

But now that he is a Spirit Dog, he can be everywhere at once.

Who could be luckier than me?

*Martha Graham